I and many other former Kansas City Star employees got a surprise on Tuesday when we reached the end of The Star’s excellent news story about Adele Hall’s death and found that first reporter credited with providing information was former society editor Laura Rollins Hockaday.
The surprise was not that Laura was involved. She was natural…except that she retired 13 years ago, after 38 years with the paper.
I jumped to the conclusion, as some other people did, that Laura had heard the news, pulled her boots on and made a beeline for the newsroom. Had that been the case, the appropriate headline for the back story would be Former society editor to the rescue!
That’s not how it unfolded, however. Today I got the story behind the story from Hockaday and Darryl Levings, who edited and assembled the A-1 story.
Hockaday said Star reporter Lisa Guttierez called her about 4:30 Monday afternoon, telling her that Hallmark had just released the news of Adele Hall’s death on Sunday in Hawaii, where she and her husband Don Hall own a home.
I can assure you that getting a call at 4:30 p.m. on a story of that magnitude is challenging and often frustrating for reporters and editors because, first, they know they’re going to be working late and, second, they know they’re going to have trouble reaching sources after business hours.
Hockaday said Gutierrez asked her for the names and numbers of people the reporters could try to contact. Hockaday said she provided contact information for several people, including Mary Shaw “Shawsie” Branton, a close friend of Adele, and Irvine O. Hockaday Jr., another longtime Hall family friend and the only non-Hall family member to ever serve as Hallmark CEO.
Oh, and did I mention that Laura and Irvine are first cousins?
He’s a tough man to reach…for the average person, anyway. I know that from experience, although I once had his personal number at Hallmark and got through to him on it one time.
Getting ahold of Irvine is not difficult for Laura, however. “I gave them every phone number I had for him,” she said.
As a result, Irvine Hockaday was quoted at length. Branton also was quoted.
In addition, Laura told Gutierrez it was imperative that The Star get ahold of someone in administration at Children’s Mercy Hospital, which was the top beneficiary of Adele’s charitable and fund-raising endeavors. Thus, high in the story, The Star quoted CMH board chairman Jack Ovel as saying of Adele:
“She was quick to give others credit. She was always telling other people, ‘You are the wind beneath my wings.”
As for the rest of her contributions to the story, Laura said that the reporters used some material from an interview she had done with Adele many years ago.
In short, Laura asserted that her contributions were minimal..no big deal.
“I don’t deserve any credit at all…I was very honored to be called,” she said. Jokingly, she added, “I’m surprised they remembered that I had worked there.”
Now, here’s the other side of the back story, from Levings, the KC Star editor who assembled the 40-inch story.
Levings said The Star had in its files what is called an “advance obit” on Adele. Laura had prepared and filed it many years ago, and it sat around waiting for the inevitable day.
In an e-mail, Levings said:
“Laura’s prepared, two-page obit, sitting in our files since before she retired a decade ago, was the blueprint and safety net for our efforts. Lisa Gutierrez and Lee Kavanaugh (another reporter on the story) had it when we started. Lisa, I believe, called Laura for potential sources. Hallmark sent their three-page version, which we used to fill in some material.
“The reporters did an excellent job zeroing in on excellent sources quickly, to the point that I had more than I could use.”
So, why did Levings decide to put Hockaday’s name before the names of the three full-time reporters who were included in the credit box?
“I wanted to honor her earlier work,” Levings said.
That placement was a great and much-deserved tribute to Laura, who is a friend of mine and a loyal reader of this blog.
My take on this is that there is no substitute for institutional knowledge on stories involving notable people and major developments with links to the past. Calling Laura was a brilliant, if logical, thing to do. She had what The Star needed — longstanding civic, social and personal connections to Adele.
Bravo, then, Laura; you deserve a lot of credit.
And bravo, Kansas City Star; you gave a great lady a thorough and well-written news obituary.